From Ashes Part 5: “…all that I have written is but straw”

"St Thomas Aquinas" by Sandro Botticelli
“St Thomas Aquinas” by Sandro Botticelli

…if the evil which is the cause of sorrow be not so strong as to deprive one of the hope of avoiding it, although the soul be depressed in so far as, for the present, it fails to grasp that which it craves for; yet it retains the movement whereby to repulse that evil. If, on the other hand, the strength of the evil be such as to exclude the hope of evasion, then even the interior movement of the afflicted soul is absolutely hindered, so that it cannot turn aside either this way or that.

(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I-II, Question 37)


 

Famous for his attempts to reconcile faith and scholarship, it is unsurprising perhaps that when Thomas Aquinas first approaches the topic of sorrow it is with the question, “Whether Pain Deprives One of the Power to Learn?” Turning first to Isaiah, who speaks of Israel learning during times of sorrow, he initially states that sorrow can in fact enable learning. Yet sorrow, he acknowledges, weighs down the body, and this in turn can prevent the mind’s faculties from focusing on learning. Sorrow also indicates distress over evil, he writes. This too can weigh down the body and mind.

What, he then turns to ask, differentiates between the kind of sorrow which enables learning and that which prevents it? There is a kind of sorrow, he notes, which weighs down a man so much that he cannot see a way out of the sorrow which he experiences. Such sorrow indicates an absence of hope. He writes:

The more one sorrows on account of a certain thing, the more one strives to shake off sorrow, provided there is a hope of shaking it off: otherwise no movement or action would result from that sorrow.

If, however, there is no hope of shaking off the sorrow – if, perhaps, the evil which causes the sorrow is seemingly too great, or if the mind is weighed down too much by melancholy – then the mind and body are overwhelmed and cannot move. Indeed,

Fear and anger cause very great harm to the body, by reason of the sorrow which they imply, and which arises from the absence of the thing desired. Moreover sorrow too sometimes deprives man of the use of reason: as may be seen in those who through sorrow become a prey to melancholy or madness.

Aquinas’ method is careful and rigorous in all things, and it is for this that he is perhaps most famous. Examining objections to each question or thesis he poses, he then responds to these objections systematically, the conclusions at which he arrives being always logical and clear, even if they sometimes answer questions which we ourselves have never asked ourselves.

Yet it seems difficult to consider depression and sorrow in such purely scholarly terms. Did Thomas, we feel forced to ask, know of this kind of sorrow himself? He speaks of it as one who knows its dimensions well, yet there is never anything personal in how he considers it – not that we should expect this, since he is rarely personal in anything that he considers. Chesterton writes of Thomas that “there is a sort of enormous quiet hanging about St. Thomas. He was one of those large things who take up little room”.

There is, however, the story of the voice of Christ which Thomas reportedly heard from a crucifix late in life, an encounter which caused him to reflect that he could no longer write since, in light of this, “all that I have written is but straw”. Whether this was a spiritual encounter or a symptom of depression, the biographers and critics are not in agreement. Certainly, his prodigious literary output seems to have ended at that point. Denys Turner comments on the fact that the Summa finished “midpoint in the discussion of the seven sacraments”, a fact which remains enshrouded in mystery. There is also the story which Chesterton relates of the Pope inviting Thomas to a Council on the Arabian sophists, which Thomas was unable in the end to attend because of the sudden, incapacitating illness which eventually took his life. In an act which, for Chesterton indicates that he was deeply aware of the emotional dimension of faith, Thomas asked to have the Song of Solomon read as comfort to him in this time. The story is, perhaps, not illuminating, except that it gives us a glimpse of a man whose inner life was as complex as his academic system. Chesterton writes that

in the world of that mind there was a wheel of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or of animals; but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things, a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics. But there must have been a moment, when men knew that the thunderous mill of thought had stopped suddenly; and that after the shock of stillness that wheel would shake the world no more; that there was nothing now within that hollow house but a great hill of clay; and the confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber, ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five.

If we can move beyond the slightly laboured idiom in which Chesterton tells his account, we see here something of the humility that must lie at the heart of such truly deep contemplation of the truths of God. Whatever the truth of Thomas’ audible encounter with Jesus from the crucifix, it seems clear that he emerged from it with a vocal awareness that all he needed as the reward for his work was Christ Himself. And so it is fitting that, at the end of his life, he should express his faith with an alarming, childlike simplicity – not the end of a great mind, but the fulfilment of one.

Similarly, Thomas’ examination of sorrow and melancholy is a fascinating mixture of careful scholarship and earthy practicality. Considering carefully why and how tears, for instance, can be understood to alleviate rather than worsen sorrow, he also recommends the medicinal power of the company of friends, sleep, and a bath. Of equal importance seems to be the place towards which we direct the movements of sorrow and emotion. For Thomas, the soul is seemingly in constant motion – either towards God, towards sin, or into itself. This latter idea is surprisingly consistent with later, phenomenological schools of psychology – with Kierkegaard’s idea of despair as the “sickness unto death”, and of Dabrowski’s concept of the “involuted” self which fails to learn because it becomes too entwined within itself. The soul which is weighed down with sorrow is the soul which cannot look to God and to the truth and thus cannot receive the alleviations of sorrow which God gives in everyday pleasures and comforts.

In a world which still struggles to reconcile the rational and the spiritual, Aquinas is something of a healthy antidote, both in his work and his life. Thomas’ awareness of both natural and spiritual explanations for mental distress should at least somewhat dispel the confusion which arises in the literature around his apparent “hallucinations”. In his psychological study of Thomas’ hallucinations, Simon McCarthy-Jones writes that Aquinas had “a sophisticated, well-developed and holistic view of hallucinations”, and – I would add – of mental illness in general. If Thomas himself had a well-developed understanding of these kinds of phenomena, it seems reductionist for us to then treat his own mental struggles as either/or propositions, whereby the natural and the spiritual are irremediably schismed. If we are to consult Aquinas’ own writings on the subject of sorrow and the “passions”, we see that what matters most is not the cause of the sorrow or distress itself but the direction in which the soul moves in response to it.

Thomas’ soul, it is clear, moved towards God in response to his encounters with distress, whatever their nature or cause. What we can best take from Aquinas’ writings and own experiences seems to be the sufficiency of Christ, whether over natural or spiritual phenomena. If Christ was indeed the only reward that Aquinas needed for his labours, so was He also the only comfort Aquinas needed in his sorrow and his death.

References

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, I-II, Treatise on Passions. Logos Virtual Library http://www.logoslibrary.org/aquinas/summa/2037.html

Chesterton, G.K. 1933. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/aquinas.i.html

Dabrowski, K. 1964. Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

McCarthy-Jones, S. Seeing the unseen, hearing the unsaid: Hallucinations, psychology and St. Thomas Aquinas. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 14: 4, 353-369.

Turner, D. 2013. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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